We had a great cruise on Holland America's Westerdam. This cruise was a last-minute impulse, booked about eight weeks before sailing. Since my partner teaches at a community college, we are hindered by his school's calendar. Spring break cruises usually cost too much. This year, the prices on some cruises went down after the final payment date. This was our 16th cruise in 20 years.
The itinerary for this cruise attracted us as much as the price: Half Moon Cay, a day at sea, Aruba, Curacao, then two days at sea. We had not sailed to Aruba or Curacao before. I like that Holland America alternated the Westerdam's itineraries between eastern, western, and southern. A co-worker friend was on the Westerdam itinerary four weeks before our cruise. He summed it up nicely: "A first-class ship."
This cruise was our second on Holland America. We sailed five years ago on the Maasdam on a Christmas cruise from Norfolk. In between, we had taken a few cruises on Princess and Celebrity. After this cruise, we will look to any of these three cruise lines for our next one.
Precruise in Fort Lauderdale
Since it was a spring break weekend, hotel prices were sky high for most hotels. I ended up booking us for one night at the Holiday Inn Express in Plantation through Hotwire. The hotel was very nice but not very convenient. The cab fare from the airport was $40 including tip. A shuttle van took us to the port—also $40 with tip. Overall, the difference in cost between this hotel and ones closer to the port more than made up for the cost of transportation. If we stay there again, however, I will rent a car at the airport so we will be able to enjoy Fort Lauderdale more. We enjoyed the pool area of the hotel. The free breakfast in the morning was also very good. There are restaurants, a grocery store, and a drug store within walking distance. The grocery store (Publix) does not have an extensive wine selection. We bought a couple of 1.5 liter bottles to take and enjoy in our cabin.
The check-in process was one of the easiest we've had. I had filled in all the forms on HAL's website ahead of time. Within 30 minutes of getting to the port, we were on the ship. Since we were there before our cabin was ready, we were told to go to the buffet for lunch on the Lido deck. Chairs and tables were at a premium, but we found an unoccupied table outside near the aft pool. After eating a very good lunch, we took went to explore the ship a little to free up the table for someone else to use.
The first place we went was the Culinary Arts Center. I had heard that the cooking classes filled up. Ashley, the party planner, was at the Culinary Arts Center. She had the schedule of the events for the week. I immediately went to the front desk to sign up for the first cooking class. After that, we waited around the Atrium Bar until the announcement was made around 1:30 that passengers could go to their cabins.
Our cabin was 5097, a VE balcony. Unfortunately, our cabin stewards had not finished cleaning our cabin. We found one of them in the corridor, and he came back in a few minutes to empty the trash and vacuum. During the course of the week, the cabin stewards were very friendly, but I think they had too many cabins to take care of. They did not get around to our cabin until mid-morning at the earliest, and several days it was after lunch before they had cleaned.
The cabin was very nice. We had not had a balcony cabin in several cruises. This one had adequate closet and shelf space for our clothes and other items. The small minibar refrigerator had enough room for us to add a couple of cans of Diet Pepsi and to keep a small carton of milk if we needed to. We did not want to bother our cabin stewards by asking them to store the other contents. The beds were comfortable. I asked for and received two extra feather pillows. The bathroom had a lot of space. The tub was very small, and we would have been just as happy to have had a shower without the tub.
Our balcony was right beside the glass elevator on the side of the ship. When we were at the railing, we could see the people in the elevator—and vice versa. When sitting down, we could not unless we were at the far end and close to the railing. The balcony furniture consisted of two plastic rattan-like chairs and ottoman. We used the ottoman to hold the breakfast tray. A taller table would have been nice. There was a taller oval table in front of the loveseat in the cabin, but we never bothered to move it outside for breakfast.
We saw the Space Shuttle Discovery launch a few hours after sailaway. It was spectacular. I was afraid we wouldn't have a good view from the ship. It started off small, but gradually it was easier to see. I'm glad both of us had binoculars. I would not have wanted to share mine. Around a hundred people were around the aft pool watching the launch.
We enjoyed the variety of options on this ship. The Lido buffet has several different stations. There are also a poolside grill and buffet that featured different items. For dinner, we had traditional late seating in the main dining room. Our table for eight as conveniently located near the entrance but behind a partition, which kept us out of the path of travel. One of our tablemates met a woman on the bus and asked if she could join our table. It fit nine comfortably. Our waiter Zen and his assistant Rony looked after us well. Aaron, the wine steward, also helped them out whenever possible. We purchased a 20-punch wine card from him, which was enough to get us through the week.
Dinners in the main dining room were very good. Some of the highlights of the week include a snapper with tarragon sauce and arugula, jerked chicken, and the surf and turf (lobster tail and filet mignon). I was disappointed in the desserts and salads. There was not much variety to them. The appetizers were very good. I did not eat many soups. The two I tried were both too salty. My partner loved the cold soups.
We had room service breakfast for five out of the seven days. We did not receive the cards to order the night before on the last two nights when the ship was in Code Red for the norovirus. I'm not sure if that was a ship-wide measure or just an oversight. We managed by eating in the main dining room one morning and in the Lido buffet the last morning. The room service was usually right on time delivering our order. One morning, however, the server came early. Two of our tablemates gave up on ordering room service breakfast because they said it always came early.
I was successful in requesting an item not on the room service menu card: smoked salmon. It's one of the things I like for breakfast almost every morning on a cruise. Our biggest problem with having breakfast delivered was trying to get the tray cleared away when we finished. They put a card on the tray every day telling us to call room service to have it removed when we finished. When I called, I got a response that our cabin stewards would clear the dishes and tray whenever they cleaned the room. Unfortunately, one of the things about having the smoked salmon is that it comes with a couple of slices of onions that I don't eat. One morning, the smell of the onions got to my partner. When he called room service and received the same answer about waiting, he told them he was going to leave the tray by the elevator. Someone came right away that time.
We managed to make one afternoon tea. It's a lovely and relaxing way to enjoy a few finger sandwiches, pastries, and a cup of tea. Afternoon tea is one thing that Princess and HAL do much better than Celebrity.
I loved the Culinary Arts Center. I went to many of the demonstrations, the trivia contests, and of course the cooking class. Das, the chef from the Pinnacle Grill, led the cooking class. Ashley, the party planner, was there to get things started—but she left after he had things under control. There were 11 of us in the class. We broke into two teams of four and one team of three. Each team had a dish to prepare. Some of the prep work had been done. Das was there to give us pointers, but the team members did most of the work. My team made shrimp with a curried mango butter. Another team cooked pork medallions with an olive salsa. The final team cooked grilled pineapple and made a rum-caramel sauce to go with it. There was already a nut bread to serve the pineapple, and Das brought out vanilla ice cream when it was time to eat dessert.
We finished cooking in about an hour and then spent 30 minutes eating, drinking wine, and listening to Das talk about some of what goes on behind the scenes. Each participant also got an apron to keep. The cooking class cost $29, and they did book up quickly. Sign up the first day if you want to be sure to get in.
On the first day, we entered the spa raffle. You have to be present to win. My partner won a day pass to the thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool. I won an oxygenating facial. We were able to use the value of the day pass as credit to the purchase of a week-long pass. The hydrotherapy pool was nice—but not as nice as the one we had experienced on Celebrity's Century before it was refurbished. My partner enjoyed the heated tile loungers. They were relaxing, but I preferred the scented steam rooms and the aroma-mist showers.
One of the steam rooms was scented with eucalyptus and mint essential oils. It was the largest one. The smaller steam room had an indiscernible scent, sometimes stronger than at other times. This room was very hot, and I could not stand it for more than a few minutes at the time. There was a third steam room that was not working properly. I detected the scent of lavender in it.
The aroma-mist showers are near the steam rooms and tile loungers. The unfortunate thing about them is that they are in a co-ed location. I felt funny showering with my swimsuit on. But after being in the steam rooms, I needed a way to cool off. The mist function was scented differently for each shower. My favorite smelled like oranges. There is a regular shower head mounted on the wall. You can adjust the temperature to your liking. Then there is a button to push that activates a cool mist from a small head on the ceiling. Two of the showers also have chromatherapy connected to the misting system. Different colors of light shine while the mist comes down.
Our second favorite activity on cruises is taking part in trivia. Kerry, the cruise director, led most of the big trivia sessions. He follows quizzes that have come from HAL's main office. A lot of passengers remember the answers to these questions after taking a number of HAL cruises. We did not do very well. But we had fun and met some nice people. The teams could have up to six people on them. There were 32 teams participating at the last trivia—probably a record number of people.
The ship is our main destination for Caribbean cruises. But, as I said before, we did like that this itinerary included two islands we had not been to before. Half Moon Cay, HAL's private island, is one of the nicest ones owned by cruise ships. We relaxed in the thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool most of the morning and then caught a tender over to the island after the crowds and died down. The water was brisk and refreshing. In other words, my partner never made it in fully. I enjoyed swimming in the clear beautifully blue water.
The buffet served at lunch was pretty good. The piece of grilled fish I ate was perfectly cooked. One of my tablemates said the piece he had was overcooked and inedible. I also enjoyed the large selection of fruit. I did not try the burgers or ribs.
Aruba was a strange port stop for us. We were there from noon until midnight. We just happened to be there on Flag Day, the equivalent to our Independence Day. All the major shops downtown were closed. A lot of passengers complained. I knew ahead of time what to expect. We walked down the main street to a park, enjoyed the view of a beach, watched the iguanas, and walked back to the ship. It was a very hot day. There were a few straw market type stalls open. Someone said that the major shops would have to pay a fine if they opened—and that a few of them opened anyway to take advantage of the cruise ship passengers, but we did not see any open ones. There was another ship there the same day.
Curacao is beautifully quaint. The Westerdam docked across the water from the main area of Willemstad. We walked across the pontoon bridge, around the fort area, to go to the synagogue. We were lucky to catch a tour guide telling her group about the building and the history of Jews in Curacao. The Jewish Cultural Historic Museum across the courtyard has some interesting artifacts and information. After wandering around Willemstad another hour, we made our way back across the pontoon bridge to the Westerdam.
As we're leaving Curacao, we watched the pontoon bridge swing fully open to let our ship out. We had seen it open partially for small boats earlier in the day. Apparently one passenger got trapped on the bridge and missed the ship. I don't know if she managed to get back on the Westerdam. We had two days at sea between Curacao and Fort Lauderdale.
Days at Sea: Code Red
A norovirus outbreak moved into Code Red the day we left Curacao. The captain sent letters to all the cabins letting the passengers know about the situation. The norovirus is a gastrointestinal illness. The symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea. It's highly contagious. The best preventative measures are to make sure you frequently wash your hands thoroughly and try not to touch anything that someone else has touched. The major measures taken during the Code Red were to stop self service of food in the buffets and the removal of salt and pepper shakers. Even before the ship reached Code Red status, there were dispensers with hand sanitizers all around the ship. We've always used these, but I saw many passengers walk right by them before the letter went out. During Code Red, the main dining room had employees squirting the hand sanitizer for each passenger at the entrance.
The other major disappoint for us was that the Code Red precautions closed the thermal suite and hydrotherapy pool. The swimming pools and hot tubs elsewhere on the ship remained open. We were promised a credit for missing two days. We did not find out how much credit we were getting until the disembarkation morning. I think it was inadequate, and I followed up with HAL to express this. So far, I have gotten a slightly increased refund in the amount, but still not enough, in my opinion, for the two sea days that we missed out on.
The ship had numerous activities throughout the day. Ashley, the party planner, said she had to provide three activities on port days and five on sea days. These included the cooking demonstrations, food trivia contests, and lectures (history of tea, entertaining with chocolate, setting a sparkling table, etc.) Jazzy, the DJ, and Kerry, the cruise director, hosted a lot of the other events. In addition to trivia, there were poolside games, ping-pong, basketball, movies, bingo, wine tastings, and drink mixing classes. I think a few more staff would help things run better. These two did a great job—but they could only do so much.
The main shows after dinner were varied as well. The production shows were typical. Another co-worker friend took a Disney cruise when Jennifer Hudson was performing on the ship. I don't think we saw any undiscovered superstars. There were three guest performers: an Elton John impersonator, a magician, and a comedian. The best of these was the Elton John guy. But maybe it's just that his music related more to me than the numbers performed by the production cast and the comedian.
This cruise turned out to be one of our best because of the people we met. Our tablemates were very interesting. One of the couples had an aft corner suite. They invited us up a couple of afternoons to share their complimentary hors d'oeuvres. We had a great roll call thread. The woman who had started the thread also organized the meet and greet for us, conveniently located in the Crow's Nest right after a trivia session. It was nice to meet some of my fellow Cruise Critics. We also enjoyed the Friends of Dorothy gatherings.
Our waiters were good, the bartenders. And even with not the best of service from our cabin stewards, they helped make this cruise good because of their smiling attitudes. The Westerdam is a beautiful ship. There were fresh flower arrangements and live plants all around. The orchids in the Lido buffet area are especially beautiful.